19 August 2012

Confucius: he was who he was, part 2

Yet another half-arsed attempt to get my thoughts in order here. As usual, the brief disclaimer that I am not a Confucian but an Episcopalian. I have enough respect for Confucianism to recognise that the rituals that I follow are not those of Master Kong or his disciples, and that my masters are the Blessed Virgin Mary, Saint Paul, Saint Mary Magdalene, Saint Augustine, Saint Alcuin of York, Saint Julian of Norwich, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Saint Sir Thomas More, Saint Charles the Martyr, William Laud, Samuel Johnson, Richard Oastler, Dorothy Day and, naturally, Our Lord himself. At the same time, though, I gladly acknowledge that the thinking and teachings of Confucius have had a profound impact on my intellectual development and upon my blend of left-wing and palaeoconservative politics.

This post follows up on a running discussion between Daniel Bell, Jiang Qing, Sam Crane (see here also) and (peripherally) myself. I personally think that quite a few of the details of the Bell-Jiang programme need some revision before they are viable, but that puts me quite at odds with those who want to dismiss them entirely, which I find unfair in the extreme - particularly coming from those who profess to respect Confucianism. Mr Crane argues from the position that their programme is neither viable nor desirable, and he makes claims which are both positive and normative in this respect. In his first post, his punchline is that China after Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong will not want to revert to a model of government which treats popular sovereignty as anything less than paramount, a positive assessment of the model’s political non-viability. In his second post, he takes a more normative tack, analogising the downplaying of popular sovereignty in the Bell-Jiang model to wanting to bring back the misogyny endemic to China’s past. In his view, the Bell-Jiang view is purely reactionary, hearkening back to a more benighted and less liberal time.

There are several points which should be addressed. The first regards the commitments of Confucianism itself. The rulers he spoke with did not want to listen to him speak about virtue, humaneness and justice; they wanted to listen to those who could help them maintain power. Just as today, in certain modern democracies, the people at the top do not listen to appeals about what is right and just from a philosophical point of view - they look at the polls. They maintain power through popularity, and so do everything they can to be popular. The last time an American president dared to speak a conscientious, prophetic message about energy dependence, he was all but tossed by his ears from office in favour of a guy who looked good in movies and proclaimed it ‘Morning in America’ (just before he embarked on a set of economic policies which would gut the middle class, put mentally ill people out onto the streets and sink this nation into massive debt in an insane arms race). Slap leather, baby! (And if Citizens United isn’t a sure recipe for advancing the crooked and setting aside the upright - ‘舉枉錯諸直’ - by inviting unlimited corporate money into politics, I don’t know what else is. I sure wouldn’t wish our political system on anyone else in its present form, as I do not wish it for myself!)

Confucius said that a righteous person should first examine what is right, seek the Good, place her own relationships in a healthy order; only then will people be inspired to follow her example. Mr Crane makes the point that this model is not incompatible with democracy, which may in certain cases be true. But the virtue-ethical reasoning of Confucius is emphatically not the reasoning of democracy, which works from the logical converse, and assumes procedurally that whatever the people follow must be the correct policy choice, simply because people voted for it. The example of Confucius himself shows that the best ideas are not always the most popular ones.

Secondly, there is the question of the role played by expedience and relevance. Mr Crane comes dangerously close to arguing (even if it was not his intent to do so) that Confucianism per se is irrelevant to modern policy questions, if not first guided by the political philosophy of liberalism, which shapes the modern global political ‘reality’. The truly fascinating thing about Mr Crane’s argument here is that it relies upon a framework that smacks of what we in the ‘American’ IR tradition call constructivism. Confucianism is what each generation of thinkers and doers has made it - Confucianism in the classical period was different from the 儒表法理 (Confucian-Legalist) synthesis of the Han Dynasty, was different from the Neo-Confucianism of Zhu Xi and Wang Yangming; and so Confucianism has to be different today in order to be relevant. Hell, even if one looks at the way Confucianism was actually used in the ‘patriarchal society’ by the likes of Ban Zhao in her Lessons for Women, or in the Tang Dynasty where women enjoyed a degree of legal and social freedom unheard-of anywhere else at the time, one would be hard-pressed to claim that even in antiquity Confucianism was irrevocably marked by misogyny - that would have made for a powerful argument! To shamelessly steal Nietzsche’s quip about Kant, though, Mr Crane is a fox who has managed to break out of his cage and taste the fresh air through his own strength and cunning, but who loses his way and strays right back into the cage. A consistent constructivist would say that there is nothing inherent to liberal, capitalist, globalist modernity which makes it any more ‘real’ in any essential, fundamental way than any of the previous constructions of Confucianism, or to any future constructions - including the Bell-Jiang one! And I don’t honestly believe Mr Crane ultimately wants to go down the road of supporting a quasi-Marxist ‘end-of-history’ thesis, that the liberal domestication of Confucianism is a necessary step for it to progress. That sounds dangerously like post-Deng CCP-style thinking to me.

Parallel to this point, too, is that Confucius himself was counter-cultural in his own time. Confucius (and Mencius after him) did not speak about what would be ‘realistic’ (that is to say, what would be expedient or profitable) for himself, for his disciples or for the rulers he spoke to; he taught these four things instead: 文行忠信 (literacy, ethical behaviour, devotion and truthfulness). Indeed, as Confucius himself put it:

‘The gentleman considers what is virtuous; the petty man considers what is expedient. The gentleman thinks of justice; the petty man thinks of gaining favours.’ (Analects IV.xi)
As such, he was not really relevant or popular in his own time - only in subsequent generations did his followers manage to garner appreciation for him. Indeed, Confucius was not particularly fond of much about his own time. One can practically hear the sarcasm dripping off this passage, mocking his day and age:

‘The people of ancient times had three failings which moderns have perhaps forgotten. The ancient eccentrics disregarded small conventions, but modern eccentrics lose themselves in dissipation. The pride of the ancients was grave, but the pride of moderns is violently quarrelsome. The stupidity of the ancients was straightforward, but the stupidity of the moderns is deceitful.’ (Analects XVII.xvi)
Or this one:

‘[They say] the ancients in their rituals and music were barbarians, whilst the moderns in their rituals and music are gentlemen. When I choose which to use, I follow the ancients.’ (Analects XI.i)
He was certainly no pragmatist, but rather a radical, albeit a radical traditionalist: he did not quiescently resign himself to the ‘realities’ of his age, but sought to fundamentally change it by restoring to it the humane, decorous rituals (and thus the humanistic ethics) of the early Zhou (‘周監於二代,郁郁乎文哉!吾從周。’). In light of this, it seems likely he would view the quiescent ‘New Confucians’ of Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and the like as poseurs and sellouts, just as Our Lord would be likely to have a rather dim view of American televangelists, megachurches and proponents of the ‘prosperity gospel’. It ought to be said further that Confucius would be a fan of neither the PRC nor the United States at the present moment, as each are characterised by massive gaps between rich and poor, and poverty and conspicuous consumption are major problems in both countries:

‘When a nation is well-governed, poverty and squalour are things to be ashamed of. When a nation is ill-governed, riches and honour are things to be ashamed of.’ (Analects VIII.xiii)
I think castrating Confucius upon the Altar of Relevance as dictated by a globalist, capitalist modernity does a great disservice to both the man himself and to his intellectual legacy. Just as with Mr Eric Blair and with Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, the misappropriation of Confucian symbolism by those who want to use him as a mascot of political ideologies for which the man himself would have had little use is unsightly. Can we not read him on his own terms, with a literary-historical hermeneutic which gives him and his disciples as much room to speak to us in their own voices as possible?

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